Earwax in Whales: Part 2

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Tree rings, glacial drilling, ocean floor deposits…earwax? What the heck is earwax doing on that list? Well, it turns out that earwax is actually an extremely effective way to study the world. Specifically, changes in the environment and pollution. 

Let’s dive into this and go to the oceans. 


What do you know about whales? Probably something along the lines of being these massive, sea-dwelling mammals that Captain Ahab just can’t seem to catch.  But did you know that whales are a valuable source for studying the environment? More specifically, did you know that whale earwax- known as whale earplugs- is extensively collected and researched because it allows scientists to see a glimpse of the past? pnas-201311418-1.jpg

Whale ear canals have a unique anatomy that allows for the accumulation of earwax to form “plugs”- and some even get to be several feet long. Similar to tree rings, scientists can determine the age of the whale by studying these plugs.  Because of exposure to outside chemicals, these ear plugs leave behind a footprint of the environment the whale was in when the ear wax was created.  For example, one particular whale experienced two separate spikes in exposure to mercury. It was determined that these spikes occurred during migration, and the high mercury exposure was the result of being in polluted waters near the coast of California. 

The old-school style of studying sediment layers of the ocean does not give scientists much insight about recent chemical changes in the water- which is exactly what whale plugs provide. Scientists can take the plug from a whale from the WWI era, and compare it to a whale today living in the same part of the ocean. nhb2013-00582.jpg

The research can then verify the tangible differences between the chemical content of the water due to the content of the earwax.  These studies can then be connected to how ocean life in general has been affected by the chemical shift in the seas. 

Scientists should be relieved that whales do not have access to Q-Tips or earwax dissolvent. The scientific community is already in a frenzy over these whale plugs, and it is exciting to see what new knowledge will come from the ears of these marvelous creatures.

Follow this link to read more on earwax in whales and how it's helping scientists learn about oceanic changes! 

 


 

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